Category Archives: memory

Annual visit to my oldest friend

A. is my oldest friend, or at least the oldest that I still have contact with. We have known each other since we were 11 years old and starting high school, that big new world full of strangers and unprecedented social negotiations. Our friendship then was one of those horrifying teenage hybrids- passionate letter writing in the night one day, the cold shoulder the next, that potent, disturbing mix of envy and admiration.  Many years later I would find out that her father had a violent temper- our mutual confidences clearly didn’t stretch that far.

When I moved away, we lost contact. One day, many many years later, I was living in Sydney and studying. I was riding my bike to the beach, slowly and without expectation, when who should I see but her. It turned out she lived just down the road from me, with a chicken run in the backyard and a long-distance lover in Canberra.

And some more years later, after meeting the long-distance lover, many dinners and films and discussions about life together, they moved to Berlin, just as we were about to leave on our roundabout way to Poland. Another 2 years passed before we actually arrived in Poland and began a tradition of yearly visits.  Not long afterwards, it turned out that she was expecting her second child, due on the same day as my kids.

We have just been to visit. We have now known each other for over 25 years. The teenage  competition has slowly faded- since she is clearly richer and more ethical , with excellent teeth and a 2 year old who can already be trusted to cross the road without a lassoo, there is really no pleasure to be gained (for me) from making comparisons. So instead I just contented myself  with enjoying her graciousness and warmth and  eating excellent meals and trying to stop my big mean children from killing her small gentle one.

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Obsession

My blog is falling by the wayside because I have become obsessed with teaching. If I am not doing it I’m planning it or thinking about it. I am clearly not very talented or I wouldn’t need to spend so much time on it all, but I am fascinated by trying to find the tricks and magic formulas which make things go well in the classroom. I have never had a job that absorbed me like this- it’s simultaneously exhausting and exciting.

Part of the excitement is just the onset of the school year after a long, slow summer. Part of it is that I did the extension to CELTA for teaching kids at the beginning of September, and now I have my own classes of 10-year olds to contend with, with their ever-shifting social alliances and wild enthusiasm for giving answers and their very involved parents. It’s a different universe to the classrooms I have inhabited until now, with their jaded accountants and teenagers who will do anything to fly under the radar.

For the first time I have to impose a system of rewards- initially I thought, with my almost 40 year old system of priorities, that nobody would do anything to get a star next to their name, but it turns out I was wrong. I try to remember being 10 myself and suddenly recall my desperate contortions at Friday aerobics, trying to get the free drink from the school canteen that was given to hard triers. It’s a trip back in time for me, and a foreshadowing of what is to come with my own children. The time is fast approaching when I will stop worrying about their eating and sleeping and start to worry about their social life and education, a far more complex set of problems.

 

 

 

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Filed under childhood, children's brains, English teaching, happiness, language acquisition, memory

Covetousness

On Saturday, we were on Plac Grzybowski in Warsaw with the kids, chasing pigeons and having a picnic. Suddenly a group of English-speaking tourists appeared, trailing behind their guide across the bridge. I was with Janek, who stopped trying to jump off the picnic table as the parade went by and stood there like some knee-high old man in his corduroys and cardigan, mouth open, shamelessly staring.

One of the teenage boys with the group noticed him and stopped. He dug around in his bag and came up with a little bag of Canadian flag pins, and said, would you like one for him? I took it, not because I thought a pointy little choking hazard was a great present for a 16 month old, but because I suddenly remembered a time in my life when I desperately coveted a pin exactly like this.

I’m in year 2, so I must be 7 or 8. It’s most likely 1984,  and we have a great big ginger moustachioed exchange teacher from Canada called Mister Teeft. His son is called Patrick- he is  the same age as me and has the most exotic accent I have ever heard. This must be time for the initiation of adult memory, because I remember quite a lot of things from this year. It is the year that my penchant for going to the toilet in rainstorms is noticed and commented on. Our classroom is the demountable on the hill, not far from the principal’s residence, and the doors in the toilet block are painted pumpkin-orange.It is the year of my spelling triumph, when I successfully spell ‘ocean’ in our class test. Kylie Taylor, the pert, curly-haired, snubnosed policeman’s daughter,  writes ‘oshen’.

Anyway, Mr. Teeft gives out these pins as prizes throughout the year. I desperately want one, but despite my genius for spelling, I don’t manage to get my hands on one until the very end of his stay, when he clears out his maple-leaf pin supply and the whole class gets one. I keep it for years in a little box of treasures- I like collecting things, especially teeny-tiny things.

Remembering all this among the waving grasses of Plac Grzybowski, I realise my own children are embarking on their own path of  unfathomable, thwarted desire. They will urgently want things of which I will be totally unaware -I’m pretty sure Mr. Teeft had no idea how I yearned for a pin. I decide to keep it in mind at moments when their hankerings seem especially baffling.

 

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Filed under childhood, children's brains, family, history, language, memory, motherhood, pure autobiography

Five things at fifteen months

Well, my little darlings, I think it’s time again for a quick recording of what is happening in our lives. Thanks once again to blue milk for this idea– a regular reckoning of the pluses and minuses of baby farming.  Though I am going to play the twin card and reduce to 5 things each.

You are both especially charming at this age, and are learning to play together. Mainly this means concussing each other with whatever is to hand and biting each other, but sometimes you actually do have fun together.  You both also love wiping things with sponges or towels, sweeping the floor, and using forks. You are both pretty steady on your feet now, and we are embarking on the era of playgrounds and INCREDIBLY SLOW walks. Here are some of the things which charm and irritate me at this juncture.

Janek- five things

1. You have become an  incredibly affectionate little boy who likes to cuddle just for fun. I love it when you squeeze me and bury your face in my neck.

2. You are completely unafraid of strangers, and go up to them wherever we are, holding out your arms to be picked up. Last weekend you tried to go home with Marcin’s parents’ neighbour in Pruszków. At the playground, you love to approach other kids and see what they’re doing.

3. You are starting to communicate with language, which I find utterly amazing. Yesterday you asked me for a nana.

4. I love the way you jump from foot to foot pant and snicker when you see food you want.

5. You are sleeping much better since we came home from Australia. Luckily for you.

Janek: another 5 things

1. You still have bad eczema, and it still worries me.

2. You are developing your tantruming skills when you don’t get what you want, flinging yourself on the floor and wailing like a siren. It makes me feel impotent and furious in equal measure.

3. You are often very clingy, especially when you’re tired, and want to be picked up a lot. I now understand my mother’s constant requests when we were kids to ‘get out from under her feet.’

4. You wake up like your father- slowly and grumpily. Even after a good nap or a full night’s sleep, you stagger around grumbling with your dandelion hair sticking up, pissed at being conscious.

5. You have learnt how to climb onto the chair in the kitchen. Technically this is a step forward, and should maybe impress me, but I don’t really like the way it opens up a whole world of benchtop murder weapons and suicide options. Though the way you lounge about there, grinning at me, is pretty funny.

 

Maja- 5 things

1. The way you say “Uwaga!” (look out!) , when you want Marcin  to tip you backwards off his knees.

2. The way you show all your teeth when you smile.

3. You love trying to put your own clothes on. The other day you got into Marcin’s t-shirt, which reached your ankles, and sat on the lounge laughing and waiting for me to notice.

4. You can amuse yourself for a long time, and come up with all the fun games- climbing into the cupboard and closing the door, putting the Mr. Lion puppet on your arm and waving it around, throwing my shoes into the bathwater.

5. Your dancing. You can’t help yourself when you hear music, and you have this hilarious zombie style where you put your arms out and shift from side to side.

Maja- another 5 things

1. You’re an early riser. Need I say more?

2. You’re a biter. I never know when I’m going to get a ferocious nip on the back of my leg. You are impervious to my stern ‘no biting!’, which is basically all I have in my discipline arsenal at the moment.

3. The way you like to poke Janek and sit on him when he is already asleep.

4. Your consummate skill in finding  used kiddy bandaids at the playground or the mummy cafe, and putting them in your mouth.

5. Your ability to hit your head. You have a never ending series of bruises on your forehead, sometimes with no apparent cause.

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Having two homes

When we went to Australia last month, I hadn’t been home for almost 5 years. During which I had cycled from Tokyo to Warsaw, settled in Poland, learnt Polish, and had two children.

I couldn’t predict what would happen to me when I got out of the plane. On the surface, most of my apprehension centred on logistics- how to transport 4 people, two of them only one year old, from one side of the world to the other, with a minimum of squealing and disruption.

What I was really worried about was what sort of crisis the trip might force. I live fairly happily and unreflectively in Warsaw, and thought that maybe this was only possible because of the lapse in space-time that separated me from my real life and home. I hear myself brushing off people’s questions about why I have made this choice and what life is like with a sort of obtuseness- that I don’t really think about it, that I am as happy as I would be anywhere, stubbornly refusing to admit any real dissatisfaction or make any unfavourable comparisons, though I think this is often what they want or expect. I felt on some visceral level that my life in Warsaw wouldn’t stand up to any real scrutiny- that my friendships would seem superficial, my work senseless, my  attachment to place tenuous, if I started to compare.

And I loved  being in Australia. I loved speaking English all the time, getting all the jokes, talking silly slang and never thinking about my declensions. I loved feeling totally at ease and inconspicuous, I loved the sea, I loved being in a place where I had a long history and seeing my family and all my lovely friends.

But I also felt fine coming back to Poland again. Partly it was just because I was ready to be back in my own space again, after a month 0f screamy nights in other people’s houses. But mainly, I just felt alright. There were people and places I wanted to see. The freeze was over and the days were longer and the language was still familiar. I felt as if I had passed an important test.

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First memories

On the second day of Christmas, we went to Marcin’s aunt’s place for lunch. Lots of meat (lacking in the traditional Christmas Eve meal), lots of staring at babies, and in the interstices, a little bit of conversation. I like his aunt. The most famous story about her is about the time she (as a fiery child), outraged on meeting a flasher on her way home from school, went home for a knife before going back to find him and chasing him down the railway embankment.

In between stuffing ourselves with turkey and trying to stop our children from plunging down the stairs, Gosia is talking about memory. She tells us that she has two very early memories. In one, she is lying in a ‘forest’, which she later decides must have been under some beetroot leaves- the sun is shining through and lighting their red veins. In the other, she is riding in a pram with a squeaky wheel. She is leaning out and watching the spokes turn, and trying to put her fingers into them so she can touch the squeak.

It made me think about my first recollections, which appeared somewhat later than hers, at the more normal age of 3 or 4. The very first memory which I can date is the birth of my youngest brother, a couple of months before my 4th birthday. My father woke us up in the middle of the night and made us cocoa, and took us to the hospital where he left us cocooned in blankets in the car while he went inside. I remember him coming back to the car, starting the engine  and releasing the handbrake in a decided fashion, and saying, ‘It’s a boy, and his name is Hugh Eric Moore.’

I conduct some informal research at dinner. Marcin remembers sitting on a bald old man’s knee- he thinks it was his grandfather, and he would have been about two. Kaśka is convinced she has no memories, and that what she thinks is a memory is really a story repeated to her by her parents. Marek remembers pissing in his snow suit when he was about 4.

It’s called childhood amnesia. Most children, at some point in their childhood, lose the ability to remember things which happened before they were three or four, and in general have a comparative paucity of memories from the time before they are 7. It’s amazing to me that my nephew, who is almost three and can name all sorts of cars and carry out a normal conversation with all manner of correct declinations,  will eventually lose his autobiographical recall of this period. My own children, caught up in their constant power struggle for old bits of cardboard and kitchen receptacles, will retain no trace of the tragedies they suffer.

I feel a mixture of relief (nobody will remember if I shout at them from time to time or let them eat an old piece of orange peel for the sake of two seconds peace) and resentment (what a great big investment of time it all is, and nobody will ever appreciate it). But mainly it makes me marvel at the neural madness of children’s brains. The theory I like the most is that high levels of neurogenesis in the hippocampus in children interfere with the formation of long-term autobiographical memories. It’s only later, when this frenzy subsides a bit, that the neural pathways can be frequented enough to form lasting memories.My own ageing hippocampus interests itself more and more in the past, and I consider it one of the benefits of getting old.

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10 years ago…..

24 December, 2003, Dongola, Northern Sudan.

I am sitting outside  Lord’s Hotel in this dusty town, which nevertheless looks like a metropolis to me with its gold shops and its tarmac after a week of riding along the Nile. The hotel is a one-story, concrete building, one of two hotels which have sprung up to catch the nascent tourist trade after the recent opening of Sudan’s northern land border. I am nursing a stomach bug I have picked up from ill-advised drinking of riverwater, feeling wan and wondering if I will ever have the urge to eat again.  It’s evening, and there is a buzz of tea drinking and conversation at the tables standing on the street outside the hotel. I am reading, or writing something, keeping an eye out for other whiteys, since I have been on the road for a bit over a week and I know that the boat from Aswan to Wadi Halfa came in 2 days  ago.

And here they come- 4 of them, carrying a gigantic bottle of Cola to drink their Christmas Eve toasts. Two Czechs, Marcin’s friend Anka, and Marcin himself. He is wearing a pale blue scarf and a pair of glasses with thick black rims, and sending an sms from an ancient Nokia. I will carry a deep affection for all these items (scarf, glasses, phone) long after they have gone out of circulation.

This story  is one which I never tire of telling myself, and it never fails to give me a frisson. Over the next decade, I will meet this man again, fall in love with him, live with him in 2 countries and travel with him in countless others. I will learn to speak to him in his own language and have the hilarious pleasure of hearing him use Australian idioms. He will be the father of my children. This moment, this harmless Christmas Eve sighting of a bespectacled European going about his business, is simultaneously so casual and so momentous that it fascinates me. It carries the ungerminated seed of my whole future as an adult, with a husband and a family, and I don’t know it.

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